The Secret Life of a Donmar Filler

5.44pm

I stand outside the double doors of the Donmar and text a friend.

"I'm first in the queue lol"

Some may argue that being first in the queue is the mark of someone who has turned up too early, or worse, has no where better to be, but not me.

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Being first in the queue on Donmar press nights is a tradition, nay, a way of life. Being there, at the head of the line is a sign that everything is as it should be. No, it's more than that. It's a statement of intent. An intention to be first in the queue.

Yeah, there may be some circular logic going on here.

5.47pm

I got a reply.

"Ok leaving now!! Gaaaah"

That's Allison. Long time theatre companion. First time marathoner.

Actually, not just a long time theatre companion. A long time queuer too. We've been doing the Donmar queue together for years. Me first in the queue. Allison a little way behind.

I should probably explain at this point what the hell we were queuing for before you start thinking that we are just extremely keen day seaters. There are no sleeping bags and pop-up tents going on over here.

We're fillers. Called upon every press night to, well, fill any spaces that the Donmar might have on their press nights, you can think of us like the seat fillers at the Oscars, but slightly less glamorous. We queue outside as all the press and invited guests saunter past us to pick up their tickets, sending up prayers to the theatre gods for sick children, delayed trains, and anything else that might ensure a no show.

I've heard that when our Academy Award equivalents are doing whatever their form of queuing is, they have to wear badges that say “I am temporarily filling this seat for camera purposes." It's kinda the same with us.

We queue, and then representatives of the Donmar will appear with clipboard and stickers in hand, to tick off our names and assign our numbers. 1 for the first person in the queue (me), 2 for the next, and so on all the way down the line.

A line that was growing. Without Allison.

I was going to have to do some blagging.

5.50pm

Another text from Allison.

"Just say your valentine is running late."

Ah, yes. Did I mention it was Valentine's Day?

I should probably use this opportunity to apologise to Allison's husband here for stealing away his wife for the evening.

The life of a side-chick is desolate and dejecting. We've got to do what we can to ensure we have hot dates on Valentine's.

"My plus one is on her way, I swear," I said after giving my name to the lady with a clipboard. I put on my best puppy dog eyes, and tried to cultivate an air of pleading, yet stoic desperation.

“We can give you the sticker for number 2,” she said, giving the nod to the keeper of the stickers.

It had worked. The theatre gods had come through. Or perhaps it is St Valentine I have to thank. Either way, true love conquers all. Or something.

The queue was being disbanded, with orders to return at 6.50pm, when we'd reform, in the order prescribed by our stickers and get our tickets. Hopefully. 

There was always the chance that everyone would actually turn up, and the poor schmucks queueing outside would be sent away with nothing to show for their efforts other than sore feet and a mild head-cold. 

This has happened to me before. But only once. On one of the few occasions I hadn't secured the coveted number one sticker.  I had no intentions of letting it happen again.

 6.21pm

As I wobbled down the cobbled surface of Earlham Street I stuck both the stickers on the back of my phone. No way was I putting them on my coat. My coat is way too nice for that shiz.

I stopped. 

Someone was calling my name.  Someone with a Canadian accent.

"Max!" 

"Allison!" 

She rushed over the street, all flustered and out of breath. 

"Oh my goddd," she trilled operatically. No, I don't just mean infused with drama. Allison is really a trained opera singer. I don't know what I did in my past life to be rewarded by all these friends who are a thousand times more talented than me, but it must have been something truly awful. "I didn't think I was going to make it," she said launching into a tale of woe and Green Park antics.

I showed her the back of my phone. "I got your number."

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We wandered a little further, turning up Neal Street and then looping round Short's Gardens, more out of habit than with any destination in mind.

"Where do you want to go?" I asked when I realised we were about to walk in a circle if we weren't careful. "Are you hungry?"

"No. You've already eaten, haven't you? I just want to sit down."

Ah. Sitting down is tricky. There aren't many places in London where you can sit down for free. 

 "What about the thing?" I suggested, pointing towards the towering monument in the middle of Seven Dials, and proving I am just as articulate in real life as I am in my blog. There were already plenty of people making use of the stone platform that circled it's base.

We picked our way through the taxis, making it across to the small island, up the steps, and to the one free corner that wasn't taken up by tourists. 

Fifteen minutes later, we were alone. We had frightened away the lot of them with our loud cackling. 

I checked my phone. 

"We should probably go back," I said. 

6.45pm

Back in the queue. 

The first back, I should add. But we weren't alone for long. After a couple of minutes our fellow queuers started drifting back. 

"Right," said the lady with the clipboard. "If you could all get yourself into order against the wall," she called above the noise of tyres trundling down the cobbled street.

We did as we were told. Shoulders leaning against the outside wall of the Donmar, like teenagers louching outside the school bike sheds.

It's quite the sight. All those people lined up outside a theatre. It tends to attract attention. 

"Is this the queue for tickets?" a man asked the lady with a clipboard. 

"Are you on the fillers list?" 

"What is this?" 

"Do you have your name on the list?"  

"No." 

"Ah. Well you need to have your name on the list to be a filler." 

"And how do I do that." 

She explained politely, but let me give you the real deal - it's all about your connections, darling. I used to work at the Donmar. Or intern there anyway. Back when interns were still unpaid and dinosaurs roamed the earth. And then temped there for a bit. Doesn't matter. What I'm saying is, I knew people. And Allison knew me.

"I spoke to someone..." he pointed vaguely towards the foyer inside. "They told me to come out here." 

"Who did you speak to?" 

I didn't hear what he said next, but it must have had a top notch mix of pleading, and yet stoic desperation, because according to Allison, he was spotted sitting in the audience.

7.00pm

We got in. Two tickets. Not together, but in waving distance of each other.

We sped up the stairs. 

The Donmar doesn't appreciate lollygagging from its fillers.

Go directly to your seat. Do not pass the loos. Do not collect a drink at the bar.

I may have paused to buy a programme, but I think the Donmar can forgive me for that. 

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Rounding the circle, we made our way to our respective rows. 

I was in the back row, and on the side. By rights I should have had a terrible view. But here's the thing... two things actually... first: sitting on the sides (especially the right side) is the best place for celeb spotting on Donmar press nights, because they tend to seat the cast of the upcoming play down in stalls left, and secondly: terrible views are not a thing that exist in the Donmar. It's far too small for that sort of nonsense. 

And far too small for my dress that evening. 

An original fifties number, strewn with hundreds of tiny embroidered red roses, I had worn it for Valentine's Day.  

I'm not sure my neighbour quite appreciated my dressing to theme.

"Sorry," I apologised for the third time, as I had to move my skirts out of the way yet again. 

By this point he was laughing. 

Oh well. 

Both of us settled in our seats, I concentrated on my pre show rituals.  

I pulled a handful of cough sweets out of my bag and tucked them into the side pocket, for ease of emergency access. I placed my scarf in my lap, just in case of any coughs that couldn't be quelled by the sweets. I took some photos. Got comfortable. And waited for the play to begin. 

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Berberian Sound Studio. 

Based on a film apparently, but I know nothing about that. 

But on stage we had microphones, and sound booths, and a sign shouting SILENZIO.

Oh. Oh dear. 

I readied another cough sweet, freeing it from its russely packaging. 

The play starts. 

There's a cough. 

Not mine, thank god. 

It's one of the actors. 

Oh shit. 

Oh SHIT. 

A tickle started at the back of my throat. 

I shifted the cough sweet from one side of my mouth to the other. 

It wasn't helping. 

It WASN'T HELPING. 

Of all the plays to have a cough at, this was the wrong one. 

And on press night. 

They'd never invite me back. 

I sat back in my seat, buried my face in my scarf, and did my best to cough quietly. 

Again. 

And again. 

And again.

I'd forgotten how bad my cough was after so many musicals.

But there was no where to hide with this play.

Forget never being invited back, they were going to throw me out before we'd reached the end of this play.

Coughing didn't go well for the actor.

I couldn't see me getting much of a happy ending either.

Finally, the coughs subsided, and the play ended.

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8.52pm

"Did you hear me coughing?" I asked Allison as we waited in the foyer to say hello to someone she knew. 

"You have a cough? Oh poor you!" 

Oh. 

Well then. 

Perhaps my scarf did a better job of smothering the sound than I thought. 

There might even be a chance I get to keep my name on the fillers list... as long as I don't go and do something stupid like write up a blog post about the whole thing...